Under California Penal Code 422 PC, California’s criminal threats law, it is illegal to threaten to harm or kill another person. Criminal threats are defined as threats of death or bodily injury intended to (and actually do) place the victim in a sustained state of fear for their safety or the safety of their family.
It’s easy to, in a state of anger or agitation, say something you don’t mean. Telling someone you’re going to “kill” them if they break something doesn’t necessarily constitute a criminal threat. In order to do so, a person must make a threat to physically harm or kill someone and:
- That person is placed in a reasonably sustained state of fear for their safety or for that of their immediate family
- The threat must be specific and unequivocal, and
- The threat must be communicated verbally, in writing, or via electronic methods
Interestingly, you can be charged with making criminal threats whether or not you actually intend to carry out the threat, and even if you don’t have the ability to do so. The criteria for being charged with the crime begins and ends with making a threat that puts someone into a reasonably sustained state of fear for their safety or that of their family, not whether you’re able or willing to follow through on the threat.
Criminal threat charges are commonly associated with domestic violence cases. While making criminal threats isn’t something people often do under general circumstances, it’s a very common charge in cases of domestic violence. As a matter of fact, criminal threats charges make up a large part of domestic violence cases that the police deal with every day. Highly-charged emotional exchanges often lead to threats, even when one partner has no intention of actually carrying it out. However, in domestic situations, the fear that making threats causes can be significantly increased when someone is forced (due to circumstances outside their control) to live with or frequently see their abusive partner.
The crime is a “wobbler” that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the case and the defendant’s prior criminal history. If charged as a misdemeanor, the potential penalties include up to 1 year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. When charged as a felony, the potential penalties include up to 3 years in California state prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.